Opinion | How the news business’s economics altered the news itself

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In disagreeable times — eg, now — nostalgia can be a narcotic. It is, however, reasonable to look longingly back to when newspapers were full of advertisements for department stores, grocery stores and automobile dealerships.

And news, much of it distressing: The world is a fallen place, and, as journalists say, we do not report the planes that land safely. Still, newspapers mattered more, and functioned differently, when they were substantially supported by advertisements for local businesses, rather than, as many increasingly are, by readers’ digital subscriptions.

So argues Andrey Mir in “How the Media Polarized Us” in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. The title of Mir’s essay treats “media” and “newspapers,” his primary subject, as synonyms. But social media and cable television have pulled newspapers in their direction.

Mir, the author of “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers,” says the internet is the culprit because it has destroyed the monopoly newspapers had on assembling for advertisers a broad audience of the sort of readers that advertisers value — affluent and mature. Newspapers’ “dependence on advertising,” Mir believes, “determined their attitude toward their readers.” It was a respectful attitude towards readers who want to make their own judgments and who are averse to political agendas advanced in reporting.

The crumbling of newspapers’ ad-based business model began with the migration of classified ads to the internet. In 2000, they gave newspapers $19.6 billion — about a third of papers’ revenue. In 2013, Google’s $51 billion in ad revenues eclipsed American newspapers’ total ad revenues of $23 billion. By 2018, revenue from classifieds was just $2.2 billion. Advertisers increasingly concluded, Mir says, that newspaper advertising was “a costly and inefficient method of carpet-bombing their targeted audiences.” And ad revenue began to trail far behind revenue from readers.

“Even the strongest American newspapers,” Mir says, “could not hold advertisers: the New York Times began getting more revenue from readers than from ads in 2012.” So, “journalism now sought new partners”: digital subscriptions, the multiplication of which could be driven by anger and fear, the fertilizers of polarization. Editors “agitated the digitized, urban, educated, and progressive youth to the point of political indignation.”

Newspapers’ ad-based business model, appealing to society’s temperate middle, “kept the natural liberal predisposition of journalists in check.” The digital subscription business model “elevated the role of progressive discourse producers” — academics and other social-justice warriors — and “empowered activism as a mind-set.” The new model is defined by “intensity of self-expression in the pursuit of response.” By the early 2010s, “the advertising-dictated necessity to appeal to the median American,” Mir says, had been replaced by the pursuit of digital subscriptions from ideologically motivated readers.

The “awareness threshold” — 60 percent of a cohort using social media — was reached for urban, college-educated 18- to 49-year-olds in 2011. A more conservative demographic crossed this threshold in 2016, the year of a political earthquake that provided the mainstream media with a commodity they could sell to digital subscribers — Donald Trump as “existential danger.”

Suddenly, Mir says, subscriptions could be solicited as “donations to a cause” — “the resistance,” and all that. “The scare came to replace news as a commodity.” This new business model “made the media the agents of polarization.” Right-wing outlets quickly learned the new game of selling the frisson of fright instead of news — the fear of being “replaced” demographically, of K-12 political and sexual indoctrination, etc.

Mir believes that all this has produced “post-journalism,” by which the mainstream media supply not news but “news validation,” the validation of news that is disturbing “within certain value systems.” This business model — media as “agents of polarization” — results in the stratification of newspapers because, Mir says, it produces large rewards for only a few nationally significant newspapers:

“People want to have disturbing news validated by an authoritative notary with a greater followership. Audiences want to pay only for flagship media, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. … Most subscription money flows to a few behemoths. The new subscription model has led not only to media polarization but also to media concentration.”

Mir says that whereas journalism used to want its picture of the world to fit the world, “post-journalism wants the world to fit its picture.” This, he says, “is a definition of propaganda. Post-journalism has turned the media into the crowdfunded Ministries of Truth.” Although he paints with a broad brush and few pastels, there is an adjective that fits his depiction of today’s media world: newsworthy.

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